In this episode of our ongoing series dealing with funeral customs around the world, we take a look at Islamic funeral rites to see how death is approached by the fastest growing religion in the world and its 1.7 billion adherents. Though Muslims across the globe generally agree upon the central tenants that underpin Muslim funeral customs, there are some regional and sectarian differences, most noticeably between the Shi’a and Sunni interpretations of how certain rites should be performed.
Many of the funeral directors whom we work with will offer Muslim funerals. You can check on their profile pages to ensure that they will carry out a funeral in accordance with your beliefs.
Preparing for Death
Most Muslims believe that after death, the deceased’s actions in life determine whether they reach Paradise on the Day of Judgement. Until this final day, the dead remain in their tombs, experiencing peace or suffering, depending on their previous behaviour. Those present as the individual passes on are expected to make the transition as easy, kind and pleasant as possible, and to encourage the dying to confirm that there is no god but Allah. While the expression of grief is permitted, it is generally expected to be controlled, with wailing, shrieking or other outbursts prohibited.
Preparation of the Body
Immediately after death, the eyes and mouth are closed and the body is covered with a clean sheet. Sharia law states that the body should be buried as soon as possible, so preparations begin immediately. While organ donation is generally accepted amongst Muslims because it can help save lives, most believers won’t allow an autopsy to be performed, as it is considered a desecration of the body. The body is washed three times according to a set of regulations that determine the order in which parts of the body are cleansed, women’s hair is washed and braided and then the body is once again covered with a clean, white sheet. Generally, the body is then shrouded in large, white sheets, with the left hand resting on the chest and the right on top of that. The shroud is then tied with ropes.
As there is an emphasis on quick burial in Islam, the body is not typically laid out for pre-funeral visitation. Instead, members of the community attend their mosque and offer religious prayers for the deceased. These prayers should not be performed inside the mosque but in a prayer or study room or outside in the courtyard, and those praying should face towards the Kaaba in Mecca. This direction is known as the qiblah. After prayers, the body is transferred to the burial site, where a grave is dug perpendicular to the qiblah. Though tradition dictates that only men may attend the burial, there are number of prominent Muslim communities that allow all mourners, male or female, to attend the service. A prayer is said as the body is lowered into the grave, then a layer of wood or stones is laid so that the body does not come into direct contact with the dirt. Finally, each mourner places three handfuls of soil into the grave. Though a small stone or marker can be used to identify the grave, a large or decorative headstone is generally not permitted.
After burial, the family gathers and receives visitors. Many will bring food or try to assist in easing the family’s burden in other ways. While the mourning period can last 40 days or more, this depends on how religious the family are and will often be a great deal shorter. However, widows are expected to mourn for a much longer period, wearing only black and avoiding contact with men who are of a suitable age and status to marry while they do.
Now that we’ve taken a look at Islamic funeral rites, we’ll be turning our gaze towards Christian customs and how the world’s largest religion copes with death. So keep your eyes open for our next post, after which we’ll be focusing on Judaism, Buddhism and Sikhism.